A couple of years ago, I was asked to help put together a code of conduct for the IA Summit. I laughed.
We need a code of conduct here? The IA Summit is the nicest, most community-friendly conference ever! Those problems happen at other conferences! And they want me to help? There are sailors jealous of my cussing vocabulary—surely I was not PC enough to be part of such an effort. But the chairs insisted. So, being a good user-centered designer, I started asking around about the idea of a code of conduct.
I found out design conferences are not the safe meetings of minds I thought they were.
One woman told me that she had been molested by another attendee at a favorite conference, and was too scared to report it. “No one will ever see me as anything but a victim,” she said. “I’ve worked too hard for that.”
At another conference, a woman was woken up in the middle of the night by a speaker demanding that she come over. When she told the organizer in the morning, he said, “We were all pretty drunk last night. He’s a good guy. He just gets a bit feisty when he’s drinking.”
Then there was my own little story. Years ago at the IA Summit, I went to talk to a speaker about something he’d said. I’m a tall, tough lady. But he managed to pin me against a balcony railing and try to kiss me. I started wondering, what if there had been a code of conduct then? What if I had had someone to talk to about it? What if I hadn’t said, “Oh, he’s just drunk”?
Maybe I wouldn’t have spent the past seven years ducking him at every event I go to. And maybe he wouldn’t have spent those same years harassing other women—women who now were missing out on amazing learning and networking opportunities because they thought they’d be harassed.
The idea of a code of conduct didn’t seem so silly anymore.
A wicked problem
Unfortunately, it still seems silly to others. Recently I was talking to another conference organizer about setting up codes of conduct, and he said, “That doesn’t happen at our conferences. People know me, and they know they can talk to me. A code of conduct will make people nervous that we have a problem. And we don’t.”
I wonder how he knew that, since most victims don’t come forward. They don’t want to be seen as a “buzzkill,” or be told that what they wore or what they drank meant that they asked for it. This is not unusual; every day we see examples of women whose reputations are trashed for reporting rape and harassment. On Twitter, women who talk about sexism in games or even think a woman should go on a stamp are given death threats. Reporting carries consequences. Reporting is scary.
In order to feel safe enough to come forward, attendees and speakers need to know that the conference organizers are paying attention. We need a guarantee that they’ll listen, be discreet, and do something about it.
In her recent piece, “Why You Want a Code of Conduct & How We Made One,” Erin Kissane frames precisely why codes of conduct are absolutely necessary:
A code of conduct is a message—not a message that there is a problem, but a message that there is a solution. As much as a label on a button or a triangle with an exclamation point in it, a code of conduct tells you how a conference works.
Tweaking the UI
We are designers.
That means we make choices about the interface that sits between the people and the thing they want. We mock interfaces that aren’t clear. We write books with titles like Don’t Make Me Think. Yet when we hold conferences, we seem to assume that everyone has the same idea of how they work.
Why do we expect that people will “just know” how to use this complex build of architecture and wetware? There is a lecture; that means professional behavior! There is a bar; that means drinking and flirting! There is a reception; that means…alcohol plus speakers…network-flirting? A conference can be a complex space to understand because it mixes two things that usually have clear boundaries: social and work. If one person is working and another is looking to get social, conflict will happen.
These fluid boundaries can be particularly hard on speakers. Attendees often approach speakers with questions inspired by their talk, which could start a conversation that leads to work…or a date. It’s hard to tell; cautious flirting and cautious networking often look the same. People can feel uncomfortable saying no to someone who might hire them—or keep them from being hired.
Sometimes after giving a talk, I’ve mistaken admiration for flirtation, and the other way around. A wise speaker stays neutral, but it can be hard to be wise after a few glasses of wine. A code of conduct is useful because it spells out parameters for interaction. Some codes have even gone so far as to say if you are a speaker, you cannot engage in romantic activities like flirting. Clarity around what is expected of you leads to fewer accidental missteps.
A good code, like a good interface, sets clear expectations and has a swift feedback loop. It must:
- Define clearly what is and isn’t acceptable behavior at your con. “Don’t be a dick” or “Be excellent to each other” is too open to interpretation. The Railsconf policy offers clear definitions: “Harassment includes, but is not limited to: offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion; sexual images in public spaces; deliberate intimidation; stalking; following; harassing photography or recording; sustained disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; and any unwelcome sexual attention.”
- Set expectations for what will happen if the code is violated, as the O’Reilly code of conduct does: “Conference participants violating this Code of Conduct may be expelled from the conference without a refund, and/or banned from future O’Reilly events, at the discretion of O’Reilly Media.”
- Tell people how and to whom to report the incident. The Lean Startup Conference’s code includes: “Please contact a staff member, volunteer, or our executive producer [name], [email] or [phone number].” Providing a phone number is a massive signal that you are willing to listen.
- Set expectations about how it will be handled. The World IA Day code is very clear:
A code of conduct is a little like a FAQ or a TOS. It’s clunky, and I hope someone comes up with something better. But it’s instructions on what to expect and how to behave and, most importantly, what to do when something breaks. Because, as we keep seeing, something will eventually break. It’s better if it’s not people.
A lot of conferences are adopting codes of conduct now. The Lean Startup Conference one mentioned above is heartfelt and crafted based on their values. The art and technology festival XOXO has an excellent one, based on the template from Geek Feminism. Yes, there’s a template. It’s not even hard to write one anymore. It doesn’t even take a long time.
Meet (or exceed) expectations
Any good experience designer knows that setting expectations is worthless if they aren’t immediately met. Beyond writing a code of conduct, conference organizers must also train their team to handle this emotionally charged situation, including making sure the person reporting feels safe. And there needs to be a clear, established process that enables you to act swiftly and decisively to remove violators.
So how should a conference handle it when the code is violated? There are a couple of telling case studies online: one from Elise Matthesen at the feminist science fiction conference WisCon, and another from Kelly Kend at XOXO.
In both cases, these women were immediately supported by the people they spoke with—a critical first step. In Kelly’s case, she brought her situation directly to the organizers, who listened to her and made it clear they weren’t going to blame her for the incident. Once the organizers had made her feel safe, they removed the harasser. It was improvised action, but effective.
In Elise’s case, it’s clear that WisCon was well-prepared to handle the incident. The first part of the story is exemplary:
- The conference staff member (called a “safety staffer”) asked if Elise wanted someone there while she reported.
- The safety staffer asked if she wanted to report it formally, or just talk it through first.
- The safety staffer asked if she wanted to use her name, or remain anonymous.
- And the safety staffer and the conference organizers kept checking in with her to make sure she was doing okay.
Unfortunately, WisCon fell down when it came to acting on the report. Eventually the harasser was banned, but only after a slow and onerous process. And the ban isn’t permanent, which has infuriated the community.
It is hard work to get the poison out of the apple. Elise writes, “Serial harassers can get any number of little talking-to’s and still have a clear record,” which has been my experience as well. Since I started writing about conference harassment, a number of women have spoken to me about incidents at various design conferences. Two names keep coming up as the abusers, yet they continue to get invitations to speak. Until more people step forward to share their stories, this won’t change. And people cannot step forward until they are sure they won’t be victimized by the reporting process.
If you are a conference organizer, it is your job to make sure your attendees know you will listen to them, take them seriously, and act decisively to keep them safe.
If you are an attendee who sees harassment, stand up for those who may be afraid to step forward, and act as a witness to bad behavior.
And if you are harassed, please consider coming forward. But I can’t blame you if you choose not to. Keep yourself safe first.
John Scalzi, author of several best selling sci-fi novels, made a pledge to his community that he would neither speak at nor attend any conference without an enforced code of conduct.
I will make the same pledge now. I will honor any commitments I’ve made previously; all new ones are subject to the pledge.
I will neither speak at nor attend conferences that do not have and enforce a code of conduct. This may prove hard, as many conferences I’d love to speak at do not have a code yet. But change takes sacrifice. Integrity takes sacrifice.
If you believe, as I do, that it is critical to make a safe place where everyone can learn and grow and network, then leave a comment with just one word: “cosigned.”